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Should Your Organization Use Social Networking Sites?

By Brett Bonfield

Social networking websites and their potential benefits for the voluntary sector explained

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This article is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to www.idealware.org.

You've likely heard of Web sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn. These types of tools, collectively known as social networking sites, allow individuals (and sometimes organizations) to create online profiles, discover others who share their interests, and create an online network of contacts and supporters.

Social networking sites have received a lot of attention from the nonprofit world because they align with nonprofits' desire to reach out to larger communities. If your local animal shelter could tap into a network of cat lovers in your area, the logic goes, wouldn't that allow it to find homes for even more pets? Adding to the buzz, there are a number of success stories about nonprofits using social networks to reach new volunteers, locate audiences interested in their cause, build up supporter lists, and even raise money.

On the other hand, the success stories can be a bit thin compared to the number of nonprofits experimenting with these sites, and the investment in the staff time required to build and maintain an online social network can be substantial. Each nonprofit has its own set of priorities, and it's unlikely that social networking will top the list for every organization.

Who is likely to get the most value out of social networking sites? To answer this question, Idealware spoke to a number of nonprofit technologists working with social networking tools. We searched beyond the success stories to discover tales of only middling success, or even of disappointment. What resulted were two sets of guidelines: first, how to know if social networking isn't right for you and second, some of the ways that social networking might benefit your organization.

Six Signs that Social Networking Isn't for You

Just because you've heard a few nonprofit success stories doesn't mean that social networking sites are worth the investment for your organization. What are the signs that social networking might not be a good fit for your priorities?

1. You're still trying to get a handle on your basic software infrastructure.

There are many ways software can enhance your organization's effectiveness and efficiency. Social networking sites should not be the first tools you turn to, however.

Almost all organizations will get more bang for their buck by ensuring that their computers are networked and backed up regularly; by purchasing robust software to help staff members do their jobs; by maintaining a useful constituent database; and by exploring the benefits of an e-newsletter or email action alerts. Once these fundamentals are in order, it makes more sense to turn your attention to experimental areas like social networking.

One exception: If you're looking for an easy way to build a simple Web site and your audience overlaps substantially with the younger and more tech-savvy audiences likely to be using MySpace or Facebook, it's worth considering using social networking tools to create a Web presence, as discussed in point one under "Opportunities in Social Networking," below.

2. Your target audiences aren't using social networking tools

Social networking works best when the people you're trying to reach or work with are already members of a community like Facebook or MySpace. Look for opportunities to interact with current or new constituents in the sites they're already using, rather than expecting them to join you on a new site.

While these sites' audiences are expanding among older and niche audiences, they are still predominantly young (in their teens or twenties) and tech-savvy. Some of the niche social networking tools can help you reach different demographics, but it's important to know where the folks you're trying reach already are.

How should you go about learning what sites your target audiences are using? There's no better way than asking them, either through a survey or informal one-on-one interviews.

3. You don't have time to experiment with something that might not work.

Online communities aren't self-maintaining. They need you to promote them, cultivate them, and give them direction. If your network blossoms, you may be able to step back and watch your users produce and share content. But getting to that point takes a lot of time and effort.

What's more, this work is not likely to yield immediate, measurable, bottom-line returns on your time investment. There are some examples of organizations attracting large numbers of supporters to sign a petition or to become “friends” within a social networking site. This is can be helpful in marketing your organization, but it's often hard to convert these online associations into more traditional supporters. With most social networking tools, for example, it's difficult to contact large numbers of friends cost-effectively.

When it comes to fundraising itself, social networking sites are still a new frontier. As is pointed out in October 2007's The Wired Fundraiser (PDF), a report by SixDegrees and Network for Good, “the successful [fundraiser] has a relatively rare combination of true passion and a means to lend a sense of urgency to their cause. Not every SixDegrees fundraiser or Facebook Cause is a winner, but a proud few — the super activists — are very effective, raising $9,000 on average and reaching 150 people.”

If you have the skill, time, and inclination to mold yourself into a super activist, and raising $9,000 from 150 people would be a big win for your organization, then social networking might work well for you. But keep in mind that there's no guarantee.

Investing in social networking sites isn't a calculated risk, like sending out an appeal letter or a proposal, or inviting a prospect to lunch. We don't yet have enough data to know what the payoffs may be, if there are any at all.

4. You're not willing to deal with technologies that don't work as well as they could.

Social networking is not yet a well-oiled machine. The technology is changing rapidly. Things break. If your organization decides to invest in social networking, you'll need a reliable consultant or a staff member (not a volunteer or an intern) who is willing to experiment, figure out how to get stuff working, and approach these tools with a sense of adventure. They'll need patience to deal with platforms that don't necessary work as well as they could, or even as well as advertised.

5. You're not ready to invest in gaining a real understanding of the medium.

So you want to seed your leadership and donor pipeline with Millennials and Gen Y'ers by reaching out to them through social networking sites? Good idea. But young folks can sniff out campaigns with ulterior motives faster than you can design them.

In order to have success with social networking, it's critical that you understand the culture of the communities you're joining. Typical social networking site users expect a collaborative, open approach. Anything that seems like a hard sell or like it was put together by a committee will be ignored, or, worse, ridiculed.

6. You want clear editorial control over your brand and message.

People who use social networking tools are not interested in promoting your brand or following your message guidelines. When you get involved with these sites, it's hard to control the context in which your organization shows up. For instance, it's completely possible that you'll appear in someone's list of “friends” alongside causes with which you do not want to be associated. Those who succeed with social networking do so by letting their constituents have a substantial voice in their message, rather than by setting firm rules and expecting users to follow them.

Opportunities in Social Networking

Still with us? While not for everyone, social networking can provide interesting opportunities for the right organization. What are some of the ways that social networking sites might help your nonprofit?

1. Establishing a simple Web presence.

MySpace and Facebook offer easy-to-use tools that will help you set up a Web presence. If you just need to put up some simple materials, and you're planning an open, collaborative outreach strategy that involves the type of people likely to be on social networking sites, creating your initial Web presence using these tools could be an interesting option.

2. Promoting specific actions or petitions.

People check their email when they want to read and write. They log in to Facebook or MySpace when they want to take action. For many, an email petition is an annoyance to be deleted, while Facebook applications are fun, social, and available when you're ready to click a button, add your name to a petition, volunteer a little something about yourself, and compare your responses with friends. If you know and respect their culture, social networking sites can be an effective way to encourage people to take action or spread the word about your cause.

3. Consolidating existing, unofficial social networks related to your organization.

Sometimes it's not about what you've created, but what already exists. Some of your supporters may already be using social networking tools to informally find and keep tabs on one another. In this case, forming an official group and profile can help all your supporters network in one place. But do so gently. You're only there to support their efforts, not ruin their fun.

4. Informal outreach that blends the personal and professional.

One director reported posting a message to one of her social networks one morning about the donut she was eating for breakfast, soon followed by another message to report on survey responses that had just come in. Social networks can be a useful, immediate way to stay in touch with a group of people, and let them know what's going on with you, your organization — even your carbo-loading.

5. Researching VIPs, potential employees, and others.

You can find tons of information about people — and a lot of possible contacts — within social networking sites. For instance, it can be a useful place to research the background and affiliations of a potential employees. One of the people we spoke to used her social networking contacts to track down Elizabeth Edwards to see if she would be willing to speak at an event. The fact that Edwards turned her down misses the point: She got close enough to Edwards, through her social network, to invite her in the first place.

6. Strengthening relationships between people who already know each other.

When you have a group of people who have participated in a volunteer day, workshop, or other meetup, you can foster their relationships through online social networking. By allowing group members to post messages and resources, you encourage them to stay in touch and continue their involvement with one another and with your organization.

7. Encourage and respond to constituent feedback quickly.

If you want to get quick and honest feedback, social networks are a great way to test your commitment to open communication. Make it as easy as possible for people to find you and make requests (either within the site, or privately), and make sure you respond quickly, personally, and where appropriate, publicly.

Are Social Networks for You?

So should you invest in creating a profile or networks on social networking sites? It depends on your organization. To succeed with social networking sites, you'll likely need a staff member or consultant who has a passion for working with these types of sites. You'll also need to establish goals to understand if the time commitment is worthwhile. For instance, if you're trying to expand your community, how many new people linked with your cause would make your time worthwhile? Be open to alternative goals, too: Perhaps your primary purpose with social networks is just to get your name in front of the younger members of your audience.

More than most technologies, success in social networks depends on your sense of adventure. There are a lot of opportunities, but many of them are not thoroughly explored or tested. You might achieve great success — or it could all end up being a great big waste of time. Think through the challenges and opportunities carefully, and then decide whether social networking is right for you.

Additional Information on Nonprofits and Social Networking

Nonprofit Organizations and Online Social Networking: Advice and Commentary Useful thoughts from Jayne Cravens on the benefits and limitations of social networking Web sites.

Using Social Networking to Stop GenocideA detailed case study of The Genocide Intervention Network's use of MySpace, FaceBook, Flickr, and YouTube to reach the young people who are their core supporters

Many thanks to the nonprofit technologists who were interviewed for this article: Michaela Hackner of World Learning, Holly Ross of N-TEN, and Ben Sheldon of CTC VISTA, Rick Birmingham of MAP for Nonprofits, Marion Conway of Marion Conway Consulting, Beth Kanter of Beth's Blog, Laura Quinn of Idealware, Jono Smith of Network for Good, and Chris Steins of Urban Insight, and Eva Treuer of Neighbors, Inc. also contributed to this article.


About the author

Brett Bonfield
Brett Bonfield recently earned his MS in Library and Information Science from Drexel University, Philadelphia, and is currently dividing his work time between Temple University's Samuel L. Paley Library, and Saint Joseph University’s Francis A. Drexel Library. He was previously Director of Fundraising and Communications for NPower Pennsylvania.

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Published: 8th January 2008

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abamaison
3rd March 2008Abilitynet have released a report about the accessibility of social networking sites: http://www.abilitynet.org.uk/enation. Further food for thought and a reminder that social networking should be used alongside other methods of communicating with your audience.